Two weekends ago, the second senior drama thesis took place. The student production of “Pippin,” a musical with a book by Bob Fosse and Roger O. Hirson and music and lyrics composed by Stephen Schwartz, performed in The Martel Theater in the Vogelstein Center for Film and Drama. The show follows a traveling performance troupe as performers tell the audience the story of Pippin, the first born son of King Charlemagne and a new actor in their troupe who longs to find fulfillment. Throughout the show, the audience is invited to witness Pippin try all sorts of things to find the fulfillment he so desperately wants, all the while encountering acts of intrigue, humor, romance, war, illusion and sex.
“Pippin” brought in the efforts of esteemed actor James Caverly as a guest director, best known for portraying Theo Dimas on the Hulu show “Only Murders in The Building.” The show also featured senior thesis members Becca Chin ’23, Cameron Long ’23, Alice Downer ’23, Halle Jones ’23 and Chelsea Zak ’23 as well as an ensemble and crew featuring students of all class years. The large ensemble complemented the story, allowing the audience to follow the journey in a comprehensible way throughout the many twists and turns. Chin, Long and Downer gave performances as Pippin, The Leading Player and Fastrada and Pippin’s Stepmother, respectively.
In the leading role of Pippin, Chin carried the plot through each new scene, tying an invisible string throughout the musical and allowing the audience to follow along. They had a challenging role to take on, since Pippin is typically portrayed by a tenor male. However, she had an incredible persistence, ensuring they would not fall into the shadows of her male predecessors. Chin’s comedic timing in the song “War is a Science” was excellent, and the jester-like movements of the ensemble fit perfectly with the spirit of the song.
As The Leading Player, Long absolutely captivated the audience with her emotive motions and omniscient state of being. Long’s dance break in “Glory” implemented the Fosse style of choreography, featuring some of his signature sultry jazz moves with plenty of hip rolls and impressively sharp details, considering how technical this style of dance can be. Long’s vocals were also spectacular, and you could feel the intent behind each note, movement and action that she took as The Leading Player. Her facial expressions were over the top in a way that made the traveling-troupe aspect really come to life, pulling the audience in and holding them there every time she was on the stage.
The last senior thesis acting member, Downer as Fastrada, was one of the most entertaining actors of the show; her comedic timing was spot on, and she created a character that was equally lovable and dislikeable at the same time. In Fastrada’s solo, “Spread A Little Sunshine,” Downer had the whole audience in a trance and wanting more, engaging viewers through dance and seduction. In addition, it must be mentioned that Downer’s upper body strength and flexibility were absolutely insane, as she fully lifted herself off the platform she was on using a pole and lifted her leg up parallel to her torso.
The senior thesis members weren’t just actors though, as Zak led the orchestration eloquently as the Music Director and Jones ensured that every set piece and actor was where they needed to be as the Stage Manager. Zak’s ability to conduct a pit of 14 musicians was astounding and being able to see her work her own magic behind the scrim was a feat. Zak also made an appearance onstage at one point, showcasing her truly impressive accordion-playing abilities. As for Jones, there was a flow to the transitions of the show that would not have been possible without her work. Each scene change glided along and helped to further emphasize the storytelling.
A few other honorable mentions include Abbye Friedman ’25 who played Berthe, Pippin’s grandmother, and Madelyn Ockner ’25 who portrayed Catherine, Pippin’s love interest. Both performed spectacularly, with Friedman really playing up the comedy and charisma and Ockner giving the audience the heartfelt ballad that is essential in every musical.
Moving beyond these star performances from the students, the Drama Department’s role in the production evoked some questions regarding the resources provided to the students for production. While the Drama Department hired an external guest director, they did not hire a choreographer, leaving the senior thesis members to choreograph the show themselves. With senior thesis members also learning their lines and songs, having to create choreography for a dance-intensive production only added to their workload. Even if it wasn’t in the budget to get an outside choreographer, and acknowledging that Vassar’s Drama Department is an experimental theater program, not a musical theater program, I wonder why the department did not reach out to dance students or professors to help alleviate this responsibility off of the students. Furthermore, many theater students have noted that the Drama Department does not own microphones, which seems odd for a program focused on the performing arts. For a school that charges $81,360 per student per year, according to the Vassar Financial Aid Services website, with a handful of the money going to each department for educational purposes, why has the Drama Department not made the investment in microphones? As there have been a handful of musical theater productions in the Drama Department, with two in the last year and I’m sure more to come in the future, purchasing microphones is an investment that would be beneficial to the department. The need for microphones is apparent when looking at “Pippin”—in some cases, there were issues with the sound when actors turned away from the audience and it became hard to hear over the orchestration, to no fault of their own.
Despite these critiques of the Drama Department itself, the students who performed in and worked on “Pippin” did an astounding job. Congratulations to the cast and crew of “Pippin”—their dedication to the production is admirable for sure.